In 19th century literature, women never menstruate. However, Eline Vere, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina do regularly feel ‘a bit weak’. Also in letters and diaries, menstruation is a highly unusual subject.
That’s why an intimate passage in a letter to the famous Dutch writer and politician Jacob van Lennep (1802-1868) immediately got the attention of emeritus professor Modern Dutch Literature Marita Mathijsen of the University of Amsterdam.
Mathijsen has published various standard works about 19th century literature, including De gemaskerde eeuw, which describes the moral of that period based on literature fragments. Her blog features the latest literary news of that era. One of her blog posts is about menstruation. Or, rather, the complete absence of it. ‘Monthly inconvenience is never mentioned, not even in novels that are written by women. I actually know of only one exception to this rule, and that book is written by a man.’
The colour of the camellia
La dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas jr. tells the story of the courtisan Marie Duplessis. who lived off her wealthy and prominent lovers in Paris and died from TB at a young age. ‘Her grave can still be found on the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.’
‘Giuseppe Verdi based his opera La Traviata on her life story. Marie Duplessis always wore a white camellia on her chest. Only a few days each month, she’d wear a red flower. This was her way of telling her lovers she was menstruating and thus unavailable for making love.’ Fun fact: ‘When La Traviata was played in Amsterdam years ago, the camellia was always red. That made me think the director of the play hadn’t read the book.’
Professor Marita Mathijsen (portrait on the left) has published a biography about Jacob van Lennep: Bezielde Schavuit. She has investigated thousands of letters that were sent to and by the writer. ‘In all those letters I’ve only read one single thing about the monthly bleeding.’
Do you know more examples of menstruation being mentioned in literature? Tell us.